Thoughts on the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple

According to The University of the South’s official calendar some years ago, the important thing about the second of February, the thing that we all really needed to know, was that it was Groundhog Day. Now I want to make one thing clear from the beginning, and it’s this: I have absolutely nothing against groundhogs. I don’t doubt that they’re excellent creatures, beloved by God. Their very existence is just one more example of God’s boundless generosity in what the schoolmen taught us to call the “generous plenitude” – the copia – of creation. All that granted, the fact remains that in my sermon that day I decided to be very brave, ignore the university calendar, and say nothing more about groundhogs. Instead I referred the congregation—and you, dear reader, if you are interested—for further information about groundhogs to Google. For my part, I turned to another subject that the compilers of our university calendar presumably regarded as of less importance – namely, Saint Luke’s account of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple at Jerusalem.

Luke begins this story with Mary and Joseph, pious servants of God who act in obedience to God’s law. The Evangelist is a little vague and even perhaps somewhat confused about the details,[1] but the general implication of what he’s saying is clear enough. Mary and Joseph have brought the child Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to God because they are faithful Jews.

With that established, with the main picture sketched in, so to speak, Luke then takes a fresh tack.

Kai idou!” he says – “And behold!” – or as our NRSV rather boringly renders it, “now.”

Just what does Luke want us to “behold”? Well, actually it’s not a “what,” it’s a he – and his name is Simeon. And the first thing we learn about Simeon is that he’s definitely a good chap. Like Mary and Joseph he too is a faithful servant of God – he’s “just and devout,” and what’s more he’s waiting – waiting for something not for himself but for God’s people. He waits “for the consolation of Israel,” in other words, for God to fulfill God’s promises. What’s more even than that, the Holy Spirit is “upon him” – a sure sign that his waiting won’t be in vain. Indeed, through that same Spirit he has received a promise: “that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”

What then? “In the Spirit” Luke tells us – and it’s his third mention of the Spirit within a few lines, so we can see how anxious he is that we shall see the action he describes as moving within the sphere of the divine dynamic, alive with the very breath of God! – “in the Spirit,” Simeon “came into the Temple.” The Greek word that Luke uses here for “temple” is hieron, not naos, so we should picture Simeon entering not into the Temple proper, but rather into its precincts. There, in an outer court – the court of the women, or the court of the gentiles – he meets with the holy family as they bring in the child Jesus, “to do for him according to the Law.”

There follows one of the most beautiful scenes in all Scripture, and it’s a pity that in rendering it our English versions somewhat let us down – and have done, since Wycliffe. For Luke doesn’t say that Simeon “took” the child, as our translations have it, but that he “received” him –Greek  edexato – implying Mary and Joseph’s permission, and even perhaps their invitation.[2] Quite often

Presentation of Christ in the Temple–Hans Holbein the Elder

paintings and stained-glass windows will portray Mary handing the child into Simeon’s arms and it’s an instance of the artist perceiving something in the text that translators seem to have missed, or at least ignored. Simeon, then, receives the child “into his arms,” and so the Spirit’s promise to him that he should see the Lord’s Messiah is fulfilled – and more than fulfilled! For Simeon not only sees him, he touches him, holds him, embraces him; and given that Jesus comes to Simeon in the weakness of babyhood, for this moment Simeon actually carries him, as the stronger carries the weaker. Simeon has waited faithfully upon God, and the reward of his faithfulness is that for just a moment, he becomes the bearer of Christ.

So it’s fitting that in that moment of joy Luke places on Simeon’s lips the third of the great prophetic hymns that mark the opening chapters of his gospel – the other two being, of course, Zechariah’s Benedictus and Our Lady’s Magnificat. All three hymns speak of the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation. Simeon’s hymn is briefer than either of the others. It’s an old man’s conversation with God. It’s the word of one on the threshold of death. Yet like the others it is confident, joyful, and full of hope.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,

According to thy Word,

For mine eyes have seen thy Salvation…

“Salvation” – sōtērion – Luke loves to use this word and its cognates to speak of God’s work[3] but perhaps nowhere does he make clearer than he does here that Jesus is that work. Simeon has seen the Lord’s Messiah, as he was promised; he has seen Jesus, as Mary and Joseph have placed the baby in his arms; and therefore he has seen God’s salvation. We may say, if we wish to sound very learned, that Luke’s Christology is also his Soteriology, and we will be right, I think, more or less. Or, if it pleases us better, we may simply say with Simeon that in seeing Jesus, we have seen God’s promise, the joy and the hope that God offers us, a thing prepared

In the sight of all peoples,

A light for revelation to the nations,

And the glory of thy people Israel.[4]

It is, as I’ve said, a beautiful moment. No wonder the church for centuries has chosen to use the canticle Nunc Dimittis at Evening Prayer and in Compline, as we mark the end of the day and prepare ourselves for the night and for sleep, which is indeed a kind of death – “death’s counterfeit,” as Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan poets frequently remind us.[5]

That, however, is not all that Simeon has to say. Even as Mary and Joseph are marveling at his words, even as he blesses the little family, in that very moment, he also utters an aside that’s directed to Mary alone – Luke is very specific about that – and this aside is a much darker word that stands in tension with what has gone before.

Behold, this child is set for the fall and the rise of many in Israel,

And for a sign of contradiction –

And a sword will pierce your own soul also –

So that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.

It’s a darker word, but it’s surely also a necessary word. In and through the light of God’s revelation in Jesus, Simeon and the holy family (and we) may indeed see salvation. But that doesn’t mean that they or we are removed from the world’s sorrows. The image of falling and rising reminds us – and Luke surely intends it to remind us – of Isaiah 8, where the prophet and his children are set for “signs and portents” in Israel, at which some will stumble and others gain new strength. That meant suffering for the prophet and his family, and it will mean suffering for Jesus. And Mary his mother will share in his suffering.

As we hear that, those of us soaked in Christian tradition naturally think of Mary standing weeping at the cross: stabat mater dolorosa, iuxta crucem lacrimosa. But of course it’s John who gives us our basis for that tradition, not Luke. The striking thing with Luke is that after his stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood, he will never actually mention Mary again until after the resurrection, when suddenly he will tell us that she is in the upper room, praying, in company with the eleven and the faithful women and the other disciples. Other people will have played active roles in Jesus’ story – people like Mary of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, Peter, and John – but of Mary we’ll have heard nothing. And yet at that point she’ll again be mentioned – mentioned, indeed, rather casually, in the middle of the list, as if her presence with the others was not something surprising, but rather something we ought to be taking for granted. The point, in a storyteller as accomplished as Luke, is surely clear enough. Mary, who manifested trust and obedience at the Annunciation, has continued to trust and obey, even though she was not centre-stage, and therefore – in the fashion, of course, of patriarchal narrative[6] – she has been ignored. Quietly and without fuss she has endured the promised sword thrust into her soul.   In her earlier trust and obedience she bore the Word of God in her own flesh. Now she will be present and will partake when the Spirit is given to the church and tongues of fire will come to rest on each (2.3, cf. 2.17). That is Mary’s story, as Luke tells it.

Luke likes to pair men and women,[7] and he does so in this morning’s go spel. Simeon doesn’t to have the stage to himself. Not at all! On comes Anna, an elderly woman who’s also a prophet and a worshiper of God. In some ways she balances Simeon, but Luke’s far too good a story-teller to have her merely repeat or reinforce what Simeon has done: so although he presents the two figures in a way that’s somewhat symmetrical, he also gives them different functions. Simeon has pointed to the gospel story in its entirety; he’s spoken of what’s to come, and of its effects. Anna acts with a narrower focus, but therefore a more precise one. Luke says of her that she “thanked” God – at least, that’s what our English versions have her do – though the expression Luke uses, anthōmologeito – says rather more than that. It’s good Old Testament Greek, and it implies publicly confessing or acknowledging something. So we need to note that Anna “openly and publicly gave thanks” to the Lord, and spoke “of him” to all in that place who were looking for “redemption” – the “redemption of Jerusalem,” which of course means by extension, “all of God’s people, Israel.”[8] Again the word “redemption” (lutrōsis) and its cognates is very specific in Luke’s usage, and indeed in the Bible generally: it speaks of release, whether legal (Ruth 3.3.12-4.14), or salvation-historical (Isa. 45.13; 52:3).[9] So the very simplicity of what is said by Anna directs us to the point. It’s not that nothing else matters. There’s a great deal that matters, and some of it matters very much, especially in our dealing with each other. But when it comes to the bottom line, when it comes to our hope for true and lasting deliverance, for “redemption,” then there’s only one place to go to and only One who can do it, as the Psalmist knew (LXX Ps. 48:8-9, 16; 129:8). “The Lord, whom you seek, will come suddenly into his temple,” said the prophet (Mal. 3:1). Well, says Anna, here He is! An eighteenth century Painter’s Manual speaks of Anna standing next to Joseph, and in her hand a tablet with the inscription, “This child has created heaven and earth.”[10] I dare say Luke himself was hardly quite there, but his narrative was certainly moving in that direction.[11]

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to God. I don’t doubt the Evangelist wants us to understand that that’s what they truly thought they were doing, and in some sense what they were doing. Yet the confessions of Simeon and Anna make clear that in a deeper sense they weren’t presenting Jesus to God at all: it was Jesus who was presenting them. And so it will always be, as the Collect for the Presentation reminds us. On the altar at the Eucharist we in some sense “present” Christ, recalling his incarnation, death and resurrection. Yet in a deeper sense we do not present Christ at all: Christ presents us, and we come to His table only as those who know they are hand in hand with Christ. How else should we dare approach the living God? “Look,” we pray in one of our most beautiful Eucharistic hymns,

Look Father, look on his anointed face,

And only look on us as found in him.

Look not on our misusings of thy grace,

Our prayer so lanquid and our faith so dim,

For lo, between our sins and their reward,

We set the passion of thy Son our Lord.[12]

The essence of our faith is that like Simeon we have seen in Christ God’s salvation; like Anna we have seen in him God’s promised redemption. And those visions hold us fast, though death and hell come in arms against us:

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles,

and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Those who truly understand this will publicly thank God for it, as Anna did, and will speak of it, as she did, to all who are looking for redemption. God grant that we may be such faithful witnesses. Amen.

[1] See François Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50, trans. Cristine M. Thomas, ed. Helmut Koester (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002) 99; Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1981-85) 1.424; Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1977) 447-51. We should note, however, the overall structure of Luke’s carefully composed birth narratives: as they begin in the Temple at Jerusalem with those who are righteous and keep the commandments of God, so they conclude in the same way.

[2] Jerome has accepit, which gets edexato nicely: but alas, Douay-Rheims simply rendered it by “took,” in conformity with all the other English versions. Incidentally, my friend and colleague James Dunkly points out to me that the little blankets in which babies are often wrapped are called, at least in parts of the United States, “receiving blankets.”  As he says, “That’s what Simeon did. It’s what any reasonably careful adult does with a baby, and it’s what the blanket stands for.” See also Dionysius of Fourna’s description of the portrayal of Simeon in icons in n. 10.

[3] See François Bovon, Luke the Theologian: Thirty-three Years of Research, K. McKinney, transl. (Allison Park, Pennylvania: Pickwick, 1987) 242-70, 456 n.3.

[4] As John Martin Creed pointed out some years ago, Simeon’s confidence and joy are a striking contrast to the attitude of the aged sage Asita to the birth of the Buddha, with which this narrative of Simeon is sometimes compared (The Gospel according to St. Luke [London: Macmillan, 1950] 37-38: cf. Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary 97).

[5]       Shake off this downy sleep, death’s counterfeit,

And look on death itself! (Macbeth 2.3.83-84)

Another less well-known but singularly beautiful example of the metaphor (which in itself is, of course, a commonplace) is offered by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Webster:

Oh, thou soft natural death! Thou art joint twin

To sweetest slumber. No rough-bearded comet

Stares on thy mild departure: the dull owl

Beats not against thy casement: – pity winds thy corse,

While horror waits on princes. (The White Devil 5.2.30-34)

[6] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza noted some years ago that in narratives written in patriarchal societies, the presence of women will as a rule be mentioned only when their behavior can no longer be taken for granted, as when it “presents a problem or when women are exceptional individuals” (In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins [New York: Crossroad, 1984] 45).   What I have drawn attention to above as implicit in Luke’s narrative is then an example (as I suppose) of what Sandra M. Schneiders calls “Revealing the Text’s Secrets”: that is, attempting “to extract from the biblical text the ‘secrets’ about women that are buried beneath its androcentric surface, especially the hidden history of women, which has been largely obscured or distorted, if not erased altogether, by male control of the tradition.” Often – as, I believe, in this case – what is needed is no more than to point to “what is plainly in the text but has remained ‘unnoticed’ or even been denied by exegetes” (The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, 2nd edition [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999] 185).

[7] In addition to the present instance, see, e.g., Mary and Zechariah in the birth narratives; the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (4:26-27); the “woman who was a sinner” and Simon the Pharisee (7:36-50); the disciples and the women who “minister” to Jesus and them “out of their substance” (8.1-3); and the parables of the lost sheep and the ten coins (15:4-10).

[8] Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary 106. Some versions, notably some readings of the Vulgate, read “Israel” here. At the time of the disastrous second revolt against Rome (A.D. 132-35), documents were actually dated to years from “the redemption of Israel” and “the redemption of Jerusalem” – in other words, Luke’s expression clearly reflects real Jewish aspirations of the period (see Fitzmyer, Luke 1.432).

[9] This is one of those cases where derivation is some use as an indicator of sense: lutrōsis and its cognates are all related directly or indirectly to luō (“to loose, to set free, to untie”) and they are invariably used in connection with some kind of liberation. In the LXX the verb generally has God as its subject and renders Hebrew ga’al “set free,” padah “deliver, redeem, save,” or paraq “pull away (i.e. from danger).” “I am the Lord… and I will deliver you from slavery and I will redeem (lutrōsomai) you by a raised arm and great judgment” (LXX Exod. 6:6); “because the Lord loved you… the Lord brought you out with a strong and a high arm and redeemed (elutrōsato) from a house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (LXX Deut. 7:8); “because with the Lord there is mercy, and much redemption (lutrōsis) is with him, and it he who will redeem (lutrōsetai) Israel from all its acts of lawlessness” (LXX Ps. 129.7-8). This is precisely the way in which Luke uses lutrōsis and its cognates e.g. at 1:68, 21:28, 24:21 and here at 2:38. The point at issue is not the means – although in secular usage the word normally implies payment of a ransom – but the fact of deliverance (cf. Isa. 52:3). Hence, as Fitzmyer points out, “the redemption of Jerusalem” at 2:38 is more or less synonymous with the earlier expression, “the consolation of Israel” (2:25) (Luke 1.432).

[10] “Saint Simeon the receiver of God holds the infant Christ in his arms, who gives him his blessing. The Virgin on the other side of the altar stretches out her arms to the child, and behind her Joseph carries two doves in his robe; near him the prophetess Anna points out Christ and holds a scroll with these words: ‘This child has created heaven and earth’” (Dionysius of Fourna, Painter’s Manual, trans. Paul Hetherington [Torrance, California: Oakwood, 1996 [London: Sagittarius, 1974] 32). Dionysius lived from c1670 to sometime after 1744.

[11] Despite Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah 445, I am not entirely convinced that Mal. 3.1 was in Luke’s mind as he composed his version of what he probably received as a Jewish-Christian oral tradition (cf. Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary 98). But that the church has made and continues to make such a connection can hardly be denied, as paintings such as Ambrosio Lorenzetti’s Presentation in the Temple (1342: now in the Uffizi), not to mention our own lectionaries, make clear (see Revised Common Lectionary, 576). The church did not make this connection without reason.

[12] From “And now O Father, mindful of the love” in William Bright, Hymns and Other Poems (London: Rivingtons, 1866); see The Hymnal 1982, 337.

Thoughts for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 2017

For the Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

I would like to spend a few moments this morning looking with you at the passage we just read for the gospel, the so-called “Beatitudes,” presented by Matthew as the prologue to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” Surely it’s one of the most familiar passages in the gospel for all Christians: yet there are ways, I think, in which our understanding of it suffers precisely because of that familiarity.

It’s very clear the evangelist wants us to hear “the Sermon on the Mount” as a speech. What’s more, both the shape and subject matter of the Sermon show that we are intended to hear it as a certain kind of speech. Some time ago the University where I used to teach had a series of lectures called, “How then shall we live?” Well, that is exactly the kind of question the Sermon on the Mount answers. It’s a speech calling us to act in certain ways, to follow a certain style of life. It’s therefore an example of what ancient literary critics – critics contemporary with our evangelist – would have called a “deliberative” speech, because it was intended to influence our “deliberations” about what we should do.

Deliberative rhetoric, according to those critics, involved an appeal to at least one of two things: either to honour, or to expediency. That’s to say, someone who would persuade us to act must convince us either that the course they suggest is the right thing to do, or else that it is the prudent thing. Ideally, of course, they might persuade us that it is both.

Now here, for me, is the first surprising thing about the Sermon. I don’t know about you, but I should have expected Our Lord’s teaching on the way to live to depend mostly on an ethical appeal: “do this because it is right!” Therefore one of the immediately surprising things for me about the Sermon is that its form is not actually to appeal to honour at all, but to expediency. Our Lord does not actually suggest that the way of life he teaches is desirable because it is noble, but because it is intelligent. Consider, for example, how the Sermon ends – with an appeal that, like the “Beatitudes” themselves, is among the best known passages in the New Testament:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall!

“Do what I tell you,” Jesus says, “and you will be safe. Ignore what I tell you, and you will experience disaster.” What could possibly be clearer than that?

What then of the Beatitudes? – “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and so on?

Well – the first thing to note is this – “beatitude” and “blessed” have become for us largely religious words, as when we speak of “the Beatific Vision,” or “the Blessed Sacrament.” But in Matthew’s Greek, the word that Jesus speaks at the beginning of the sermon (μακάριος), the word that we translate into English as “blessed” – that word is, actually, not a religious word at all.   In its normal sense it is actually a quite secular, this-worldly, even irreligious word: it simply means “happy,” “fortunate,” or even “lucky.” “How happy,” Jesus says. “are those who are reviled! How happy those who are persecuted!” In other words, at this point, too, Jesus presents us with what is formally not an appeal to our honour, but to expediency. “Live your life this way,” he says, “and you will be happy!” Live some other way, and, by implication, you will be miserable.

But that granted, surely we have a puzzle. Does what Jesus says actually make sense? Does not simple observation of the world as it is tell us that it is those who are well treated, not those who are persecuted, and those who are honoured, not those who are reviled, who are happy? So what does Jesus mean? Was the world he addressed somehow different from ours? In this respect, of course not! These beatitudes would have startled Jesus’ first hearers just as they startle us – and no doubt they were meant to.

Of course not all the beatitudes would have seemed so paradoxical. “Happy,” Jesus says, “are the poor in spirit” – which is to say, those who know they cannot go it alone, those who, as the New English Bible translated this verse, “know their need of God.” Many in Jesus’ audience – and not only Jews – would have agreed with him.   The very quality that makes Virgil’s Aeneas the ideal Roman hero (in contrast to, say, a Homeric hero, such as “crafty” Odysseus) is that Aenius is pius Aeneas, faithful in discharging his obligations both to those around him and to the gods. In other words, he doesn’t think he can go it alone. He fears the gods.

Again – “Happy,” says Jesus, “are the meek” – actually, at least in the sense which we moderns use the word, “meek” no longer gets the force of Jesus’ words very well, although it did so better in the sixteenth century. The word in Greek is praus, and it refers to a quality that Greeks, Romans, and Jews alike in the ancient world would have regarded as among the greatest of virtues: we might render it by a phrase such as, “gentle, disciplined calmness.” It is the quality of those who know who they are and are in control of themselves, and who act gently and compassionately even when they have just cause for anger and have the power to punish harshly.   It was a quality that the Greek philosophers commended in rulers; it was a quality for which Plato’s Phaedo praised Socrates (Phaedo 115d–117a); and it was a quality for which the Jewish scriptures praised Moses, who was, they said, in this sense more “meek” than any person upon the earth (Num. 12.3 LXX).

Again – “Happy are those who mourn.” On the surface that is false. Obviously, our Lord himself was not someone who always went about with a long face. If he was, how on earth did he come to get a reputation as “a winebibber” and one who (in contrast to John the Baptist) came “eating and drinking”? Why on earth did all those tax collectors and sinners and harlots keep asking him to their parties? Yet Jesus does seem to be saying here that the saints should mourn, at least some of the time. Why? The answer, if we reflect for a moment, is obvious enough. We should mourn because the righteous suffer and God has not yet put things right. We must mourn because God’s will is manifestly not yet done on earth as it is in heaven. We may put it another way – if we can watch the news on television, if we can seriously consider the woes of the world, and not mourn, there is evidently something wrong with us.

We may say the same kind of thing of at least five of the other beatitudes, of those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” of the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. Of all we can say that properly understood, they do represent a true path to human wholeness and integrity, and therefore a true path to real happiness.

Still, however, there are those last two beatitudes. “Happy are those who are persecuted” and, “Happy are you when people revile you and persecute you!” How can that be? To be persecuted, to be reviled – these are not, after all, ethical qualities or qualities of character. So in what sense do they make us happy?

First, we should note the way in which they are qualified. It is not persecution on any ground that makes us happy, nor is it being reviled on any ground. Jesus does not say that we will be happy if we are reviled for being a pain in the neck. “Happy,” says our Lord, “are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… Happy are you when people revile you … on my account.” What is envisioned is not simply hostility, but hostility brought on because of “righteousness,” that is, in the cause of God’s justice, and because of faithful obedience to God’s will. The truth is, Jesus says, to be reviled in such a way as this is to be reviled as the prophets were reviled – and, he might have added, it is to be reviled as he himself was reviled, so reviled that eventually we brought him to a cross. To be reviled for God’s cause is to be in the company of God’s faithful: more, it is to be in the company of the Son of God. To be reviled for God’s cause is therefore to be in the fellowship of Christ’s church.

And here, finally, we come to the real secret of the beatitudes, which is also the secret of the church: for the secret of the church lies in its hope, and the church’s hope is not in itself, but in God. So – the way of life that the beatitudes propose is finally expedient for us, not because of anything we see in the world, nor because of any particular character it may build in us, but because of what God will do.   The way of life that the beatitudes propose is finally expedient for us because it is God’s way, and God will not forever be mocked.

Therefore – “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” – not just the Kingdom as we see it now, partial and fragmented by our sin, but Kingdom for which we pray, the Kingdom that God will bring, God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Happy are those that mourn for the sorrows of the world – for they shall know God’s consolation.

“Happy are those who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness,” because in the end, “they shall be satisfied.”

“Happy are the pure in heart” – that is, those whose vision is single, who have fixed their eyes and hope upon God alone – because they shall indeed find what they seek: “they shall see God.”

In that vision too, there will be paradox. In its light all other beauty and joy for which we longed, or even which we tasted, will turn out to have been only a promise; and yet, in its light, all other beauty and joy will find its meaning and be more precious than it could ever have been by itself, precisely because it is a promise of the true beauty, God’s beauty, by and for which the heavens were made.   God grant us purity of heart. God grant us to see God’s beauty, and to rejoice together in it. God grant us that happiness. Amen.

Thoughts on the Second Sunday after Epiphany 2017

John the Baptist is back with us again this morning. He appears a lot during the seasons of Advent and the Epiphany, doesn’t he? Today we have part of St. John’s take on him—St. John, who always has a slightly different slant on things from the other three evangelists, and is always interesting.

“The next day,” John tells us—in the morning, that is, of a new day—the Baptist “sees Jesus coming towards him.” The evangelist’s choice of phrase is significant. He could so easily have said, “He saw Jesus walking by,” or something of that nature—as indeed he says later in this passage. But for this first encounter he says the Baptist saw Jesus “coming towards him.”

As always with John, the nuance is theologically significant. If we’ve been listening to his gospel, indeed, if we’ve been listening to the Scriptures generally, we should already know that God’s Word is always coming to the world, and the world can never overcome it. It came to the Patriarchs, to Moses, and to Israel’s other prophets. It came at the Annunciation—“the angel of the Lord brought glad tidings unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Ghost.” The initiative is always God’s.

And so it is here. The Word, the Word made flesh, comes toward the Baptist. And it is then, in the light of that prior gift, that the Baptist sees Jesus, and declares who he is in words that have by6444823493_5796253b91_z God’s grace been engraved by George Frideric Handel on the musical soul of the English speaking world: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!”

But just what did he mean by that?

In asking ourselves that question we find ourselves faced with another of those knotty problems that the scholars and theologians have been arguing about almost from the beginning of Christianity. Did he mean that Jesus is the true paschal lamb – something that seems to be implied later in the gospel? (i.e. 18.28). Or is he thinking of Jesus as the victorious messianic ram that we find in some Jewish apocalyptic writings? (e.g. 1 Enoch 89:41-50). Or is he thinking of Jesus as the true ram for sacrifice that Abraham had said God would provide? (cf. Gen. 22).  These and other views all have their supporters, and for what it’s worth, if I have to choose, I incline to put my money on the last—it fits best with the “Jesus the beloved Son,” that is, Jesus, God’s Isaac, of the other gospels.

But that’s if I have to choose. And I’m not sure that I do. In such scholarly controversies as these, maybe we all run the risk of getting a little too heavy.

We are of course getting too heavy if we insist that the words can only mean one thing. That is a silly idea, dating more or less from the so-called Enlightenment, and would have been quite alien to the evangelist or those who first treasured his words. They would have understood that great words can mean lots of things, and the greater the words, the more they can mean. So even if my choice is right as the main idea in the evangelist’s mind at this moment, I certainly wouldn’t rule out the presence of the other ideas somewhere in the mix of his thoughts.

And in another way perhaps we are getting too heavy in that on the simplest level the force of the image is surely clear enough. A child could understand it – and perhaps a child can understand it best. Whoever has actually seen a lamb can get it. “Lamb” speaks surely of innocence—in virtually any culture. That this is “God’s lamb” speaks also of holiness, God’s holiness, now having its epiphany, its manifestation, to the nations.

And what does this Holy Innocent do?

He fulfills, John the Baptist tells us, our deepest desire – indeed, the deepest desire of the human race.

And what is that?

It is surely a world without sin and sin’s consequence, death. It is surely an end to alienation and fear. It is surely the gift of the joy of God’s presence! It is Eden restored, where the woman and the man are together and not ashamed, and where God walks with them in a garden in the cool of the day. Which of us, in the deepest level of our hearts, in those moments of insight when we have seen the uselessness of all the other things that we once thought might satisfy us, which of does not desire such things? Which of the world’s great faiths does not express our yearning for them – as Karl Barth observed when he said, “all human activity is a cry for forgiveness.”

And that, says the Baptist, that is the gift Jesus brings. He is God’s lamb, God’s innocent, who takes away the sin of the world, who puts things right. It is as simple as that. No one, perhaps, has put it better than St. Augustine, commenting on this very text in his unfinished contra Iulianum. Jesus takes away sins, he says,

“both by forgiving those which have been committed (among which original sin is included),

“and by helping us not to commit sins,

“and by leading us to the life where sins cannot possibly be committed.”

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us! O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace!

So we will pray in a moment, before we receive Our Lord in His sacrament. And his grace and gift so abound that his mercy and peace are thus available for us, saving us and sanctifying us.

It is, of course, a dangerous salvation and a disturbing peace that comes to us in this way, at least in the short run.  “The peace of God it is no peace,” as the hymn says. I confess I find it a dreary hymn with a dreary tune, and I groan every time we have to sing it. Please forgive me, any of you who love it! But in this particular respect at least we may agree that the hymn is right.

If we expect God’s lamb to bring us peace and wholeness as the world reckons those things, we’d better think again. God’s lamb is more likely to bring us to places we would not have imagined, people we do not expect, and tasks we do not think we need. Just when we think we have mastered the Christian life, God’s lamb will blow our pathetic vision to pieces, and compel us to look at something new. And the new vision will probably not be safe, or comfortable – at least in the short run.

But that’s in the short run. In the long run, as Peter says later in the gospel, we have no choice. “Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus asks the twelve, somewhat later in the gospel. “Lord,” Peter answers, “to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed and come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68). And there’s the rub. To be a Christian is in one sense to be hooked. To be caught. There’s nowhere else to go. No wonder Our Lord first described those whom he would send in his name as “fishers of men”!

But as the angel said to Mary at the Annunciation, as the angel said to the shepherds on the first Christmas night, as the divine revelation, the divine Epiphany, always says to those who see it and are puzzled or disconcerted, “Fear not!”

“Fear not!”

For this is the way we were always meant to go. And though the road may lead us, as it led Dante, through Hell and Purgatory, its end will be Paradise, union with God and each other. “Those,” says Jesus, “who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day…   This is the bread that came down from heaven… Whoever eats my bread will live for ever” (John 6:54, 58).

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world: grant us thy peace!

And now let us confess our faith…

Thoughts on the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ 2017

Francesco Albani (1578-1660), Baptism of Christ (http://public-domain-images.blogspot.com/)
Francesco Albani (1578-1660), Baptism of Christ
(http://public-domain-images.blogspot.com/)

“Then,” Saint Matthew tells us—that is, while John the Baptist was preaching—“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan.” Jesus comes with a purpose: “to be baptized by him”—and so Matthew prepares us for the conversation that follows. It begins with John’s demurral: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” How can he, the mere forerunner, possibly baptize the One who is stronger than he, whose sandals he is not worthy to carry?

But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Our Lord’s response is striking in at least two ways. First, because in Matthew’s gospel it’s the first thing Jesus says, and second because it’s unique to Matthew. All our other accounts of Jesus’ baptism tell the story without this conversation. Neither of those facts, however, means that Our Lord’s words are easy to understand. And as you’ll see if you look at any major commentary on Matthew, interpreters have been arguing about what they mean for more or less the whole history of Christianity.

This in itself may be a useful lesson for us. The fathers of the reformation used to say that the Scriptures had perspicuitas, or “clarity”: by which, at least when they were at their best, they did not mean that the Scriptures were easy, nor even that they always made sense to us, but that the effort to understand them, undertaken so far as one could in communion with the church and in faithfulness to her teaching, would always bear good fruit.

So then, in this second Sunday of the year of our Lord 2017, we take our own little shot at understanding.  “It is proper,” Our Lord says, that “in this way”—that is, by accepting John’s Baptism—he should “fulfill all righteousness.” What, then, is “righteousness”—or, more precisely, “all righteousness”?  We are to understand, I suggest, that whole area of justice and loyalty to one’s covenant obligation that is covered in the Old Testament by the Hebrew word tzadiq, a word that our English versions generally translate as “righteousness,” and which is used to refer to two different, though evidently related, things:

First, it is used of “God’s righteousness,” that is, the norm of God’s faithful behavior towards God’s creation, toward humankind and among humankind particularly toward those called to be God’s people.

Second, and as a result of that (since justice and loyalty are naturally reciprocal: you can’t be just or loyal alone) it is used of the proper norm for our conduct in response to God: our “righteousness,” that norm of human behavior which the prophet Micah summarized in simple practical terms as “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

What then does it mean that Jesus will “fulfill” this “righteousness”? —indeed, that he will, according to our text, “fulfill all righteousness”? The word “fulfill” (Greek: plēroō) is clearly special for Matthew. In connection with the actions of disciples, he uses other words, such as to “do” God’s will, or to “keep” the commandments. The word “fulfill” he reserves for Jesus alone: and surely we aren’t wrong, given this signal, to look ahead to Our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount—words again that are to be found only in Matthew: “I have not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill” (5.17), and also to bear in mind those several occasions when the evangelist speaks of a word or event in connection with our Lord as “fulfilling” Scripture (1.22, 2.15, 2.17, 2.23, 4.14, 8.17, 12.17, 13.35, 21.4, 26.56, 27.9)—using, again, the same word, plēroō.

So just how does Jesus’ accepting John the Baptist’s baptism—“a baptism of repentance,” even though Matthew clearly understands that Jesus in himself has nothing to repent—how does that “fulfill all righteousness”? It does so because undergoing the baptism of repentance joins Jesus with those who do have to repent—which is to say, it joins him with humanity, with us. Of course the baptism is not in itself “all righteousness.” But it is a part of that righteousness: a sign that Jesus is, to use another phrase about him that is, in this sense, unique to Matthew, Immanuel, “God with us.”

And God greets that sign, says the Evangelist, with a sign: “when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” Just as the Spirit of God brooded like a dove over the face of the waters in the Genesis creation story, so the Spirit of God broods over Jesus in this union of God with us which is, as Saint Paul will later put it, “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5.17, Gal. 6.15), an act of God as wonderful and mighty, in its own way, as the first.

But at what cost?

And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In Greek these are the very words with which, in the Greek Old Testament, Abraham was told to take his beloved son Abraham and lay him upon the altar and kill him (LXX Gen. 22.2, 16). They are the words, again, that God will speak from heaven on the Mount of Transfiguration, as Our Lord is about to set his face to go to Jerusalem and death (Matt. 17.5). And finally “God’s son” is the title that will be attested as Jesus’ own on Calvary, on this occasion not from heaven, but by none other than the pagan soldier who has just crucified him, whose conversion through the cross will stand as first fruit of the gentiles (Matt. 27.54). That is how, being united with us even unto death on a cross, our Lord will finally “fulfill all righteousness.”

And what is that to us? A millennium or so before Our Lord was born at Bethlehem, King David sang, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Two millennia or so after, Austin Miles the Protestant hymn writer sang, “for he walks with me and he talks with me.”[1] Matthew’s portrait of Our Lord as Immanuel, God with us, is a declaration that both David and Austin Miles were right, that God chooses in Christ to be united with us in life and even in death. And of that faithful union of God with God’s people and God’s creation, our Lord’s uniting himself with Israel in its “baptism of repentance” was a sign: the sign that we celebrate today.

And now let us confess our faith…

[1] C. Austin Miles, “I come to the garden alone” (1913).

Thoughts on the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ 2017

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Juliet is frustrated that her love for Romeo is forbidden for no other reason than that he belongs to her family’s rival family, and has their name:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet!

She goes on to suggest Romeo should “doff” his name, which is, she says, “no part” of him, and in exchange he can have her!

Juliet is a well-educated girl, so she is surely aware that she is sharply taking one side in a debate about language that went on quite vigorously at the Renaissance. One view, which Juliet takes, is Aristotelian, that language is arbitrary and the meanings of words are arrived at by “custom.” The other, which is Platonic, is quite opposite. According to this, there is a profound relationship between what things are called and what they are. So, even if we all agreed that from this minute on we’d call a rose a splunk, it wouldn’t work. There’d be something about a rose that “splunk” just doesn’t get. “My love is like a red, red splunk”? I don’t think so![1]

In this matter, there’s no doubt that ancient Israel held to a view that, if not exactly the same, certainly resonates much more closely with the Platonic view than with the Aristotelian. Names mattered. What you called a thing was what it was.[2] And if you knew something or someone’s name, you had thereby a measure of power over them. That is why there is all that care over the name of God in the Bible. God’s name is not revealed to just anyone, and it is not to be spoken by just anyone. It is revealed to those who are to be called into a special relationship with God, to those who are his people. And in time, of course, this reverence for the Name of God comes to mean that it is simply not to be uttered.[3]

All of which brings us to today’s festival, “The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

First, let us look at the gospel, at Luke’s account of the shepherds’ visit to the manger. It is rather prosaic, after the splendor and the glory of the angels’ appearance, but it is carefully worded, nonetheless. The shepherds tell what has happened to them, and what has been told them about the child, and all are amazed—as well they might be. But it is surely Mary’s reaction that the evangelist wants us to note most of all: she “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart,” as our NRSV translation has it. Actually, that may not be accurate. According one very thorough word-study[4] of the word translated “ponder” (Greek: συμβάλλω), what it means in contexts such as this is not so much “ponder,” as if Mary were trying to work something out, but rather, “understand”. Luke is telling us that Mary gets it! She interprets God’s intervention in her life clearly and correctly. And in this understanding she and Joseph move to the next step in the story, which is that after eight days the child is circumcised and given the name Jesus, “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

What then is so special about this name? Saint Luke, unlike Saint Matthew, does not actually spell out a meaning for the name “Jesus”—that he “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1.21). But Luke surely expects his readers to know who “Jesus”—that is, in its Hebrew form, the Old Testament’s “Joshua”—actually was: that he was the leader of his people, who brought Israel out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Luke expects us to know that, and to draw our own conclusions: that here is the new Joshua, who will lead us, as our Book of Common Prayer has it, “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”

But even when we have said that, we may well ask, how will this child have the power to do these things? Who has power over sin and death but God alone? And that is where we turn finally to the passage from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard earlier. Some think Paul himself wrote these words, some think that he was quoting a hymn that the Philippians themselves were familiar with. It really doesn’t matter—either way he thought that the words expressed what he wanted to say. He begins by pointing out that Christ Jesus “did not think equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” As Christina Rossetti puts it in the hymn that we shall sing in a few minutes—

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him

Nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away

When He comes to reign:

In the bleak mid-winter

A stable-place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty,

Jesus Christ.

But that was by no means the end of it! Following on Jesus’ being faithful even to the cross, Paul says,

God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name.

And what name is that? For Pharisaic Jew such as Paul there can be only one possible answer to that question. It is the Name of God.[5] That, Paul says, is the Name bestowed upon Jesus. And then, in clear and obviously deliberate allusion to passages in Isaiah where God declares that He the LORD alone is God, that beside Him there is no God, and that “to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall confess” (Isa. 45.23), Paul says that all this—this bestowing of the Divine Name on Jesus—has come to pass,

so that at the name of Jesus

   every knee shall bow,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord.[6]

And this, Paul asserts, this confession of Jesus Christ as Lord is, “to the glory of God the Father”—that is, to the glory of the One God, beside Whom there is no other.

What then is all this to us? This bestowing of the Divine Name on Jesus, this declaration that the man from Galilee, is also, as the Nicene Creed puts it, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God”—what does it mean? Well, many things no doubt, but certainly this: that even as we acknowledge the divine majesty that the heaven of heavens cannot contain, so we also believe that when we finally face that majesty we shall encounter a person: one who was willing to be tempted and tested at all points even as we are, though without sin, yet a friend of sinners, a healer of the sick, who finally cared for us so much that to be one with us he was willing to endure the death of the cross.

His is the Holy Name we now confess, as we proclaim our faith:

We believe in One God…

 

 

 

 

[1] If anyone is interested, see Jonathan Hope, Shakespeare Language: Reason, Eloquence and Artifice at the Renaissance (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2010) 1-39.

[2] “For the Israelites there is upon the whole no difference whatsoever between the idea, the name and the matter itself.” Again, “To know the name of a man is to know his essence. The pious ‘know the name ‘ of their God (Ps. 9,11; 91,14), i.e. they know how he is”(Johannes Pedersen, Israel, Aslaug Møller, transl., [2 vols.; London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1926], I-II.168, 245).

[3] The Jewish Bible has the name יהוה, generally transliterated into Latin characters as YHWH. Faithful orthodox Jews not will not presume to utter this Name.  Instead, they use some other expression such as  הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא (hakadosh baruch hu: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He”), or השם (HaShem: “The Name).

[4] W. C. van Unnik, “Die rechte Bedeutung des Wortes ‘treffen’: Lukas 2,19,” in Sparsa Collecta: The Collected Essays of W. C. van Unnik (3 vols.; NovTSup 29-31; Leiden: Brill, 1973-83), 1.72-91; see also Francois Bovon, Luke, Christine M. Thomas, transl. (3 vols.; Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002 [2002]), 1.92.

[5] I here reflect what is at present a minority view, although I believe it be correct. Among those holding it, however, see J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (London: Methuen, 1898), 113-114; Marcus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians (Black’s New Testament Commentaries; London: A & C Black, 1998), 142-44; Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999), 34, 53-54.

[6] I cite the Old Testament translating from the Greek (Septuagint) version that Saint Paul was undoubtedly using.